Agency as Living Truthfully

I read two articles by Richard Williams on agency, since I think that it is a fundamental component of a theory of conversation and any theory of instruction. The argumentation of the two articles was pretty similar, although the later article (Williams, 1999) addressed a Mormon audience and thus applied the concepts to principles within Restorationist theology.

Williams’ argument is highly philosophical.  I will summarize a couple of main points, but hope I can also tease out the application to a theory of conversation.

Williams argues that traditional psychology is positivistic, empiricistic, and deterministic. This view grows from the acceptance of the metaphysic of things, Williams says, which posits a fundamental grounding for reality & thus for knowledge, as thinglike & necessary.  But to Williams, the notion of necessity obviates the possibility of agency, meaning, and morality in human action.  Meaning is possible only when an action is not necessary.  To apply these ideas to instruction and to conversation, learning can only be meaningful if it is not simply “the necessary effect of some necessary cause or set of causes” (Williams, 1992, p. 753).

Williams presents the “strong” view of agency: First, he explains that there is “nearly universal acceptance, by both proponents and opponents of agency, of the notion that freedom exists when one could have done otherwise, all circumstances being the same…. [T]he concept of freedom is conceptualized (or operationally defined) in psychology as the making of choices from among genuine alternatives” (Williams, 1992, p. 755).  However, Williams points out that “[t]he notion of freedom as choosing among alternatives is, however, unsatisfactory” because “[i]f freedom is defined as choice, then one can argue either that there is no freedom, because all choices are grounded and the grounds then determine the choices, or else that freedom is simply randomness, because it consists of ungrounded ‘choices'” (Williams, 1992, p. 756). This is highly philosophical to my mind, and it is difficult for me to poke holes in Williams’ argument (though I am interested to see how others would do so).

Having thrown out the view that agency is choosing between alternatives, then, Williams proposes a definition for agency which he believes avoids the philosophical dilemma stated above: “the question of the possibility of agency is the question of the possibility of truth….  [F]reedom requires truth or freedom from falsity…. Freedom is not a quality people have nor a ‘category’ attached to humanity, but an activity, a way of being in concrete situations. Freedom is having the world truthfully” (Williams, 1992, p. 757).  Agency is most meaningful when defined as living truthfully “if for no other reason than choices made without truth are neither moral nor meaningful, and thus agency would lose its purpose and, therefore, cease to be agency” (Williams, 1999, p. 136).  He applies this conception of agency to the social world as well:

It follows, from the view of agency as living truthfully, that freedom comes not by autonomy and individualism nor by any individual qualities or characteristics, but by the nature of our involvement in the social and historical world…. [F]reedom requires our fullest truthful social & moral participation…. Rather than others being a threat to one’s agency, others are the occasion for the possibility of agency (Levinas, 1969). (Williams, 1992, p. 758 – 759)

He further clarifies truth as “not the sort of ‘truth as correspondence to ideal or law,’ which is its usual meaning in our (metaphysical) tradition. Within the hermeneutic tradition (e.g., Faulconer & Williams, 1985), truth is spoken of as ‘the way things are (being)’ in their temporal and contextual concreteness” (Williams, 1992, p. 757).

I feel that I need additional clarification about this last statement: truth as the way things are (being) in their temporal and contextual concreteness.  I like the emphasis on the concrete (though I’ll admit myself an idealist who might more naturally see “truth as correspondence to ideal”).  We have already seen that Michaels et al. argued for “accountability to knowledge” and thus to concrete details and events.  But I’m not sure I completely understand what Williams is saying in this definition of truth, which I need to understand to fully grasp his conception of agency.

Even if I don’t understand every detail, I do like his argument that agency can be philosophically defensible if viewed as living truthfully. The issue of living truthfully reminds me of teaching A Separate Peace.  My students and I followed the strand of authenticity, and found that theme everywhere in the novel. For me, it made the book so much more interesting, more than just “boy jealous of his best friend.”  And I like that Williams sees a social advantage to this definition as well, wherein “others are the occasion for the possibility of agency.”  Williams even ties this social component of agency to conversation, though only briefly: “We also, as we enter into truthful conversations with others, provide truth. In this way, we are the guardians and nurturers of others’ agency” (Williams, 1999, p. 137).

I’m not sure if reading these articles has made me better prepared to argue that agency is an essential in instructional conversation. I hope so, since a revised rough draft is due very soon!  🙂


Williams, Richard. (1999). “Agency: philosophical and spiritual foundations for applied psychology.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy. 24, no. 1: 116–142.

Williams, Richard N. (1992).  “The human context of agency.” American Psychologist 47, no. 6: 752-760. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.6.752.


4 thoughts on “Agency as Living Truthfully

  1. I have been thinking about agency as well. This seemed like a deep read…no scanning, skimming, or surfing allowed.

    “[i]f freedom is defined as choice, then one can argue either that there is no freedom, because all choices are grounded and the grounds then determine the choices, or else that freedom is simply randomness, because it consists of ungrounded ‘choices’”

    I think that I am missing something here. What does he mean by grounded?

    I do agree that freedom is truth but I can’t say that I understood his reasoning. I would say that freedom is truth because when one has the truth they are making informed choice instead of simply a choice.

    • It made sense in reading the article, but I too am not a philosopher and so am finding it hard to cough up the argumentation he provided!

      I think his argument (and I don’t have the article before me, so forgive me) was that if some particular grounds is my reason for making a choice, then I wasn’t truly free to make that choice — I made it because of certain grounds, not because of complete and unfettered freedom. I may think I am choosing to defend my child out of my freedom of choice, but truly I made that decision because of motherly love/instinct.

      On the other hand, if freedom means I make choices WITHOUT grounds, that is just random nonsense, which also isn’t a very good basis for freedom.

      Thus he feels that CHOICE itself is not a good way to define freedom, since choice is either grounded (not completely free) or ungrounded (nonsense).

  2. Pingback: Occupational Therapy on Doing-Being-Becoming « Lisa Rampton Halverson

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